Jennifer and I received a call tonight from the wife of a law school professor, letting us know that he had passed away earlier this week. She spoke of his affection for us and said that since we had kept in contact (Christmas cards and the occasional email) over the years, she wanted to give us the news personally. That was quite a gift.
And Tom was quite a man.
He was anything but the typical law school professor, though.
He was unpolished, for one thing. He was wrinkled and rumpled, often looking as if he had slept in his clothes. He was a bit loud, a bit uncouth, and more than a bit impatient with the pretentiousness that infects many a law student. As a result, he offended as many as he attracted.
He no longer smoked or drank, but this was on doctor’s orders and was not a matter of choice. He hinted that he had done enough of both in the past to last a lifetime, and his body showed the effects. I’m sure his doctors stayed on him about his diet as well – he downed soft drinks like they were water, usually going through a couple of them during the space of a given class. And he loved to eat, as long as the food was “down home” and the servings were plentiful. He knew every cheap diner and barbeque joint around.
Several memories about Tom stand out, but the one that I keep coming back to is the 5K race that the law school sponsored each spring (“Race Judicata” – lawyers and Latin scholars will get the pun). The finish line was in the law school’s parking lot, and as a fellow IL and I crossed the finish, Tom approached us and proffered a brown paper bag. We took the bag, looked inside, and saw that it contained a six-pack of Budweiser. It was the first beer that Tom had bought in a long time, I think, and as my friend and I popped the tops and savored the brew, Tom was clearly enjoying it vicariously with us. I’m sure he had no idea how meaningful that gesture was. This was our first year of law school and there were some professors who wouldn’t even deign to nod at us as we passed by them in the hallway. Tom, though, was validating us as fellow human beings – and as the friends that we would ulimately become.
In some ways, Tom might have seemed to be a walking contradiction. A more apt description would be multi-dimensional. Tom showed me that it was perfectly acceptable to be able to find satisfaction in both a tightly drafted statute and in outlaw country music. Tom was one of the most authentic people I have known – what you saw was what you got. It just depended on which side of him you happened to be looking for.